Q: My son is 14 and I wasn’t around for most of his life, but about two years ago I reached out and he responded positively. We are now pretty close, but it’s obvious he is even closer to his stepdad, which I think is because he has been around since he was a little boy. This weekend I’m scheduled to be with my son, but I don’t think he really wants to go. I don’t know what’s right or wrong. Should I demand that we spend the day together or let him stay with his stepfather? What’s good ex-etiquette?
A: Good ex-etiquette always begins with “Put the children first” (Rule No. 1), and that rule is especially helpful when it comes to making decisions like the one you have before you. When you use what is best for your children as the deciding factor, most answers are really quite simple. It’s when parents let their own feelings color what’s right or wrong that decisions get difficult to make.
It’s important that you don’t jump to conclusions. It would be understandable if your son wanted to stay with his bonusdad (stepdad) for Sunday, but he could also be quite torn about the decision. Demanding that he spend the day with you may actually backfire. Set the stage with a conversation that doesn’t make him choose, but lets him know he’s wanted in both places. Start with consulting his mother and stepfather and once the decision has been made, present it to your son as a united front.
Truth is, that’s how most decisions should be made at this point. Too often parents think a child is 14 or 15, and that makes them old enough to choose. That puts far too much pressure on them, especially in your case when your son may be weighing his allegiance to a man who has raised him against his allegiance to his biological father with whom he naturally wants to nurture a relationship. Listen to where he’s coming from, but don’t just drop the decision in his lap.
Luckily this doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition. You can arrange the day so that your son can spend time with both you and his bonusdad. Start by asking mom about a possibility. Something like, “I know you may already have plans for Sam on Sunday, but is there some way I can pick him up for a few hours and take him to lunch?” (Or, if that interferes with their plans, suggest breakfast and have him back before noon.)
Truly, it’s not about the day — the groundwork must be laid all year. You are lucky. It’s not uncommon for kids who might feel abandoned or rejected by a wayward parent to rebuff the parent if they show up later. The fact that your son reacted positively is a tribute to his character, but don’t discount the impact his mother and stepfather have in his ability to openly accept you. They obviously have given him permission to love you. That is the essence of “put the child first.”
Dr. Jann Blackstone is the author of “Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation,” and the founder of Bonus Families, www.bonusfamilies.com. Reach her at: